This week for New Books in Physics, I spoke with Dr. Roberto Trotta of Imperial College London about his new book, The Edge of the Sky: All You Need to Know About the All-There-Is. Inspired by xkcd’s Up-Goer Five comic, Trotta describes the current state of astrophysics and cosmology using only the ten-hundred most common words in the English language. We had a lot to talk about: everything from specific choices for technical terms to what a supersymmetric particle is, to what inspires people to go into science. This little book and its creative turns of phrase is packed full of fun puzzles – at least that’s how I felt reading it. When matter/antimatter collisions are described as “hugs” between “sister drops” and Sweden is identified as “a cold place with lots of ice-water, close to the top end of our Home-World,” reading becomes an exercise in re-thinking even familiar concepts. The result is a refreshing and unprecedented perspective on the complexities of modern astrophysics, and it makes for a mind-stretching read.
On a minor and totally geeky history note, I was happy that Dr. Trotta brought up his choice of the phrase “tired light” to describe the redshift-distance relationship discovered by Hubble in 1929. “Tired light” has been used before to describe a class of alternatives to the Big Bang theory, and the term was coined by none other than Richard C. Tolman (with whom I’ve been spending some time lately). Tolman used the phrase to capture the idea that perhaps light from distant galaxies is not shifted to redder frequencies because the galaxies are moving away from us, but rather because the light is losing energy on its way to our telescopes. This idea has since been abandoned, freeing up the phrase to be reused here to describe the redshift relationship in jargon-free language. This reuse struck me as an interesting example of how language choices play into the process and communication of science, and I’m glad it made it into the podcast.
Anyway, you can listen to the full hour-long conversation here, and I think the book itself is definitely worth a read! Here’s the original Up-Goer Five comic from xkcd, and a text editor based on the ten-hundred most common English words, in case you’d like to try it out yourself!